Analysing India’s progress towards the elimination of child marriages

Analysing India’s progress towards the elimination of child marriages

Authors: Suhani Pandey & Sonakshi Chaudhry

Published: 22nd February 2024 in Hindustan Times

India has made remarkable strides in the decline of child marriages over the last few decades and has led global progress to eliminate the practice. Child marriage is prohibited in India and the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 envisions protecting the fundamental rights and liberties of minor girls and boys. Despite this, 1 in 3 of the world’s child brides live in India, and girls face a heightened risk of violence and poverty, along with violation of their right to education, health, and protection. Illustrating this, UNFPA analysis of NFHS-V data suggests that in terms of demographics, 48% of girls who were married below 18 years of age had received no education as compared to only 4% who gained higher education.

There is also a discrepancy in reported numbers, where despite high prevalence of child marriages recorded under NFHS-V (23.3%), National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) annual ‘Crime in India’ report recorded an average of only around 360 incidents per year of child marriages between 2011 and 2020 under the Act. Due to pandemic-induced poverty perhaps, a sudden spike in child marriage cases was also reported both across the country and globally. Reported cases per NCRB data during this time were 785 in 2020, and shot up to 1050 in 2021, lowering only slightly to 1002 in 2022. More recently, in a written response to Parliament in August 2023, the Ministry of Women and Child Development (WCD) suggested that an increase in the number of reported cases under the Act could also be attributed to awareness initiatives and enhanced reporting mechanisms undertaken by various states. While this may be the case, the issue remains pernicious and multilayered, and there are several areas that need to be addressed to solve the problem, ranging from social norms and beliefs to the implementation of policies.

Implementation Gaps

Research by the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation highlights that there is high underreporting, but even for reported cases, more than 90% of child marriage cases were pending trial as of 2021 and the overall conviction rate under the Act has been found to be poor. Other barriers have also impeded the effective implementation of the Act due to wide variations in state capacity and institutional support. For instance, as per the WCD website, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand had either not formulated or not uploaded their rules as of 2020 under the law leaving crucial roles like the Child Marriage Prohibition Officers (CMPOs) unappointed. In late 2021, Uttar Pradesh’s Directorate of Women Welfare circulated draft rules for public consultation but the outcome of this exercise is unknown as the rules have still not been notified.

UNICEF data suggests that over half of India’s child brides reside in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh and civil society organizations have sought the court’s support to ensure the effective implementation of the Act. In response to a petition filed before the Supreme Court last year, the Ministry of Women and Child Development has been asked to provide the steps taken for the effective implementation of the provisions of the Act. In Maharashtra, emphasizing the need for effective implementation of laws against child marriage, the  Bombay High Court has also requested information on the appointment details of Child Marriage Prohibition Officers.

Addressing the issue

To address the issue of child marriage in India, a comprehensive and cross-cutting approach is imperative. Prioritizing the fast-track trial of reported incidents under the Act, immediate notification of rules and the appointment of a Child Marriage Prohibition Officer (CMPO) equipped with the necessary infrastructure, is crucial. However, legal measures alone can prove insufficient. Holistic socio-economic solutions must be implemented to raise awareness among girls and their families and facilitate their improved access to education and support institutions, including financial networks.

In addition to socio-economic solutions, comprehensive measures will be required to streamline coordination and promote convergence among key stakeholders, including those charged with implementing the provisions of the Juvenile Justice Act (JJA), the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA), the Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses Act (POCSO), as well as police officers, district magistrates, child helpline coordinators, and shelter homes, who collectively strive to achieve the common objective of preventing child marriages.

The government can lead the way by prioritizing the swift implementation of rules under the Act and devising key policy measures for the empowerment of adolescent girls. Socio-behavioral change campaigns can go a long way in collectively raising awareness of society, challenging social norms and ensuring better reporting of incidents.

Suhani is Analyst, Public Policy & Sonakshi is Manager, Strategic Partnerships & Communications, at The Quantum Hub (TQH) – a public policy firm.